US

ACLU: New York state's attempts to put NRA out of business violates First Amendment

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is shown in this file photo at an event at New York Universityon March 9, 2018 in New York City. Cuomo and other New York leaders have supported shutting down business for the NRA in the state, leading to a rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The American Civil Liberties Union is defending the National Rifle Association against attempts by New York state leaders to put it out of business, Reason.com reported.

New York's attempts to compel banks and insurance companies to remove the NRA as a customer is a violation of the First Amendment, the ACLU argued in brief filed in federal court on Friday. The brief supports a lawsuit previously filed by the NRA.

"Although public officials are free to express their opinions and may condemn viewpoints or groups they view as inimical to public welfare, they cannot abuse their regulatory authority to retaliate against disfavored advocacy organizations and to impose burdens on those organizations' ability to conduct lawful business," according to the ACLU.

The ACLU brief does not defend the NRA’s stance on firearms but instead uses a long list of First Amendment cases to argue that regulators should not use their positions to “punish political enemies,” according to the report.

An intimidation campaign against the NRA reportedly began last fall, a timeline prepared by the group suggests. It started when an anti-gun group, Everytown for Gun Safety, met with New York leaders in September 2017, according to the report. A month later, a Department of Financial Services investigation led to a company called Lockton, ditching the NRA as a customer in February. The same happened with Chubb and Lloyd's.

What did the state do?

Maria Vullo, head of the state's Department of Financial Services, next sent letters letters to all banks, financial institutions, and insurers licensed to do business in New York. In the letters, he warned companies to stop doing business with pro-Second Amendment groups that "promote guns and lead to senseless violence." Instead, he urged the organizations to support "the voices of the passionate, courageous, and articulate young people" who want more firearms restrictions.

Vullo advised companies that received the letter to "review any relationships they have with the NRA or similar gun promotion organizations, and to take prompt actions to managing these risks and promote public health and safety."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo supported the threat in a tweet the next day: "The NRA is an extremist organization. I urge companies in New York State to revisit any ties they have to the NRA and consider their reputations, and responsibility to the public.'"

Following the communications, multiple banks “withdrew bids to provide basic depository services” for the NRA, the report stated. The NRA is also concerned about the fate of its TV channel, with hosts including Dana Loesch and Cam Edwards, unless it is able to obtain media liability insurance.

"If Cuomo can do this to the NRA, then conservative governors could have their financial regulators threaten banks and financial institutions that do business with any other group whose political views the governor opposes," David Cole, the ACLU legal director, wrote in a blog post. "The First Amendment bars state officials from using their regulatory power to penalize groups merely because they promote disapproved ideas."

The ACLU’s brief also noted that liberal groups can also be targeted based on their political views. That approach has also been shot down on First Amendment grounds.

How has the state responded?

New York State maintains that the warnings from Cuomo and Vullo telling regulated businesses to stop doing business with the NRA and other pro-Second Amendment groups are legal.

A brief filed August 3 by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood stated the letters "do not constitute unconstitutional threats as a matter of law."

It also stated: “The Guidance Letters encouraged insurers and financial institutions to evaluate and manage risks that might arise from their dealings with gun promotion organizations in the face of the polarized political debate. Both the Guidance Letters and the Press Releases are classic government speech—they are expressing the government's position in the public gun control debate, which is entirely permissible."

Cuomo, who faces a primary challenge next month from actress Cynthia Nixon, had also posted a YouTube video titled: "Stand with us in the fight to end the NRA's stranglehold on American politics. VOTE SEPT. 13"

The NRA filed a supplemental brief today that stated:

The state could enact onerous building regulations, then make it known that such regulations will be enforced only against landlords that rent space to the NAACP or Black Lives Matter. Or, the state could begin charging a sales tax for internet purchases, but only enforce the tax against merchants who stock books by a dissident author. The Court should not indulge this end-run around equal protection.

A hearing on New York State's motion to dismiss the NRA's lawsuit is set for September 10.

One last thing…
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